Saturday, February 02, 2008

Maybe 'They' Should Study Some Science Instead?

I got a good chuckle and almost yell "You Go, Bill!" after reading this commentary. He is responding to the call that science and engineering students take more "liberal arts" courses as part of their education.

I am tired of the presumption that it's the engineers who need to become "well rounded." The typical engineer has broader knowledge and interests than the average non-engineer, in my experience. Then look at the abysmal understanding the public has about basic science and engineering topics; it would be funny if it wasn't so sad. These are the same people who call upon the technical community to solve every problem quickly, painlessly, and without tradeoffs. Tell me: Who needs to learn more about the other side of life?

That actually is a very strong point. Science and engineering students today have to learn a lot more than what they need to know several years ago. Our accumulation of knowledge causes students to have to know a lot more before they can graduate.

Now don't get me wrong. I think all engineering and science students should learn about other things to be effective scientists and engineers. The art of communication, be it verbally and in writing, is crucial, especially in dealing with the general public. We have already seen what can happen to science funding when the general public and our politicians are not clearly informed on why funding basic science is important.

However, I think that the liberal arts electives that these students should be exposed to should be relevant to their profession. Learning about the social, philosophical, and human aspect of science and technology, and how they are perceived by the public, would be something highly useful to them when they do become scientists and engineers. But as the commentary has mentioned, this "understanding" needs to go both ways. Many liberal arts programs do not require their students to have any working knowledge of science and engineering. So in that sense, I can fully understand the frustration of the author in this paragraph:

There are many reasons for this decline, including the sheer complexity of today's technologies, a lazy and jaded public, and the dumbing down of education (have you seen today's high-school chemistry labs?), to name a few. But the basic principles of science and engineering are still vital and unchanged (force, power, gravity, the list could go on and on). Why should our community accept the premise that it is we who need to learn more about that non-technical side, rather than the other way around?


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